Behavioural Science
Dissecting Negative TV Ads Of Trump And Clinton

In a series of conversations leading up to the U.S. presidential election in November, Christopher Graves — a recent Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Resident honoree for behavioral science, Global Chairman of Ogilvy Public Relations, and chair of the PR Council — and Steve Simpson — Chief Creative Officer of Ogilvy & Mather North America — will dissect and debate the candidates’ communications and marketing strategies and techniques.

Graves: Steve, let’s kick off with two television spots that have been running head to head from Clinton and Trump. Trump’s first authorized general election spot, called “Two Americas: Immigration” sets a vision of a dystopian America under Clinton against a safe America under Trump. The first half, under Clinton, is dark and foreboding. Then the tone shifts abruptly.

Simpson:  In this commercial, the visuals overpower everything: the visuals are the narrative.

The inhabitants of these two different Americas receive sharply different filmic treatments. The people of “Hillary Clinton’s America”—the ones who “skip the line,” who cheat the system–are denied individuality, even humanity. They appear as furtive, disheveled figures. Sometimes their faces are blurred, not to protect their privacy but to project their guilt. In one scene, three men cross a street (jaywalking?). Right before we cut away, in the space of perhaps 15 frames, one of the men grabs his crotch. Remember: They’re criminals, and rapists.

This America is presented as a dangerous swirling, chaotic mass. We see Syrian camp refugees and groups of people — undocumented immigrants, is the implication – crouching on top of moving box cars.

But there is one shot that is especially devastating. Through the open door of the helicopter, we see the rushing ground below. It’s a shot we have all seen many times before, so it triggers an immediate association. We are in search of prey: zebra, wildebeest, Viet Cong. Animals. Enemies. And now “illegals”?

Graves: This is a real amygdala tickler of an ad. It goes straight to that fear center of the brain. The imagery puts us on alert, makes us want to text our kids to see if they are OK.  Some neuroscientists have found that fear has a bigger impact on the right – politically, that is. Conservatives, they claim, have a larger right amygdala, the emotional fight-or-flight center that governs fear. Others have found sensitivity to threatening images and startling noises correlated more strongly with self-described conservatives.

This Trump ad also pushes on the fairness issue in a way that appeals more to conservatives. The social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt has pointed out that when you speak of fairness to someone with a more left-leaning worldview, it means leaving no one behind and creating equal opportunity. However, to someone more conservative, the notion of fairness means getting what you deserve and have worked hard for—in opposition to scamming the system or freeloading. The first half of the ad hammers this home by saying: “Illegal immigrants convicted of committing crimes get to stay, collecting social security benefits—skipping the line.” This is a twofer psychologically: you get both the fear element and the unfairness kicker.

Simpson: To continue the visual contrast, the people of the “Donald Trump’s America” — those of us who got here first — are presented in sharp detail and individuality, and with a scrupulous diversity in casting. This half of the commercial seems to borrow the warmth of the visual technique from Reagan’s “Morning in America” spot, but neglects to adopt the warmth of its tone.

Trump tries to make a turn toward hope in the last half of the spot, but it doesn’t succeed. The shift from gloom to glory is just too hard.

Graves: Here again, from a behavioral and social psychological aspect, we see imagery of things back in control. We have found our wife and child and kiss them out front of our tidy suburban home, in our SUV-haven neighborhood. The penultimate shot of the sun setting over the USS Intrepid is interesting (I know it is setting and not rising because it is anchored just outside our office in New York, facing west). The Intrepid was decommissioned in 1974 and has been a floating museum for 40 years. It is the military might of WWII and the “Greatest Generation,” not the invisible cyber warfare or clinical drone strikes of 2016. Much of Trump’s language and indeed his campaign motto tap into what behavioral scientists call a “nostalgia bias” — thinking things were better in the past then they really were. So harkening imagery and language that evokes the past makes us feel more secure.

Finally there is a small thing about the fonts —

Simpson: The fonts? Aren’t you playing in my yard now?

Graves:  No, actually. There is a segment of behavioral science called “fluency processing.” Basically, the more readily and easily you can think of or recall something, the more you believe it to be true. And that extends to design. Research has shown that people are more likely to believe an easy-to-read font or graphic, even if it is untrue.  One reason for this may be that information that is easy to read and recall seems more familiar to people, and people associate familiarity with truth.

Which leads to my criticism of the fonts on the first half of the Trump ad — why make them more difficult to read? That may backfire. The second half uses bold, legible, high-contrast fonts and graphics that work better according to fluency bias experts.

Simpson: Or it could just be that when the subject is Trump, ONLY HUGE UPPERCASE LETTERS ARE STRONG ENOUGH.

Graves: Let’s look at Clinton’s ad now.

Graves: Clinton is clearly playing on risk aversion and the contrast between the majesty of the White House and the foul language and unstatesmanlike brashness of Trump.

This whole “just one wrong move” approach sets the stakes very high. It reminds me of Johnson’s anti-Goldwater “Daisy” ad, while Trump’s ad reminds me of George Bush Sr.’s “Willie Horton” ad about the dangers of paroled criminals. While both evoke fear, they are very different; one is fear of a trigger-happy candidate and the other is fear of outsiders.

Simpson: In her Convention speech, Clinton said about Trump, ”He’s taken the Republican Party a long way from ‘Morning in America’ to ‘Midnight in America.’ He wants us to fear the future and fear each other.”

Graves: Steve, not to embarrass you, but you go way back in advertising. Didn’t you work for the author of the legendary Reagan ad “It’s Morning in America?” A positive ad, I might add.

Simpson: In 1984, I was a copywriter in San Francisco for advertising man Hal Riney, who wrote the now canonical “Morning in America” commercial.

Every sunlit visual conveys a sense of peace, optimism, and progress. Its genius is in the simplicity and subtlety of the factual narrative that grounds the whole and argues for the re-election of President Reagan. The voice-over narration is delivered in warm, reassuring tones by Hal Riney himself:

“It’s morning again in America. Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country’s history…”

But it’s said that during the same lunch break, Riney also penned a second ad, a darker, more cautionary one (“The Bear”). He wrote:

There is a bear in the woods. For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don’t see it at all. Some people say the bear is tame. Others say it’s vicious and dangerous. 

Since no one can really be sure who’s right, isn’t it smart to be as strong as the bear? If there is a bear.”

To the 1980s audience, it was a clear presentation of the Soviet threat in parable form.

At the time, “Morning in America” was regarded as the more powerful of the two commercials. (It also received more airtime than “The Bear.”) Certainly the language—and the crucial “morning” metaphor—framed the reality of the time in ways that appealed to Reagan partisans and persuaded independents. Discussions of the spot come up during every electoral cycle.

Looking at the current head-to-head spots, no viewer can feel good after this miserable use of thirty seconds, and no viewer can feel better about either candidate.

Graves:  There is a deep and deeply confusing body of research on negative ads and voter turnout.  There have been findings that negative ads: a) have no impact; b) decrease voter turnout; c) increase voter turnout; d) both increase and decrease turnout depending on the party and the timing. One recent study looking back more than a decade says negative ads work better to mobilize Republican voters than Democrats. Another claims to find that Independents stop voting when both major parties go negative.

But beyond each individual election, the long-term trend is clearly negative. And that is taking its toll.

Governor Hickenlooper of Colorado has claimed he will only go positive this time around. He likens the damage of negative advertising to mutually assured product destruction. If Coca-Cola and Pepsi slammed each other’s products no one would drink either, he says: “What we’re doing is we’re depressing the product category of democracy. And especially young people just tune out.”

First Appeared on Harvard Business Review

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